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French election plunges into 'obsession with immigrants'

Jewish and Muslim leaders link arms in a silent march to honour the victims of a shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school, where a rabbi and three children were killed in Toulouse March 25, 2012.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters/Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Samia Ghali has spent her whole political career waiting for a French election to turn its attention to the lives of her 100,000 poor, mainly Arab constituents. Now, as the presidential election descends into a debate about immigrants and Islam, she is wishing the topic hadn't come up.

"There is an obsession with immigrants in this election," said Ms. Ghali, one of only three Arab members of France's senate, "but there's no talk, even within my own party, of doing anything to help them. All we have is an increase in tension directed at Muslims."

That's because the tightly-fought presidential election, with the first round set for April 22, was upended last week when one of France's young Arabs, Mohammed Merah of Toulouse, murdered seven people, including three Jewish children, in a calculated series of terror acts. In the week since Mr. Merah was killed in a standoff with police, President Nicolas Sarkozy made speeches across the country calling for restrictions on legal immigration, laws to make it illegal to browse Islamist websites or visit training camps, and for tougher policing and more deportations. He famously said, on the day of Mr. Merah's first killing, that there were "too many foreigners" in France.

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On Thursday, Mr. Sarkozy stepped in to defuse a conflict over where Mr. Merah would be buried, after both his hometown of Toulouse and his ancestral homeland Algeria refused his remains. "He was French. Let him be buried and let's not have any arguments about it," he told BFMTV.

But on the campaign trail, he is also adopting some of the language of Marine Le Pen, the head of the ultra-right-wing National Front, a party with a history of Holocaust denial and an absolute opposition to immigration. Ms. Le Pen seized on the Merah killings, asking in a speech this week, "How many Mohammed Merahs are arriving on boats and planes each day, filling France with immigrants? How many Mohammed Merahs are among the children of our immigrants?"

Ms. Ghali, a member of the opposition Socialist Party, represents northern Marseilles, a poor district with one of Europe's largest concentrations of Arabs. France's estimated five million Muslims are among the most integrated Islamic communities in Europe in terms of culture, language and French values, but they are also among the poorest and most marginalized. A third of the people in her district live below the poverty line, and two in five come from broken homes.

She is alarmed by Mr. Sarkozy's apparent attacks on the ethnic background and immigration status of her constituents. Most Algerians in France and their offspring are French citizens, as Algeria was part of France before 1962.

"Things are worse for Algerian kids since I was a child," she said. "We're falling behind – the lack of schools, the lack of teachers, the lack of education, the lack of housing, the absence of police. They're losing confidence, this generation. It feels to them like the state and the French people have turned their back on them, so they have nothing to lose."

But Ms. Ghali is equally alarmed by the response of her own party and its leader, François Hollande, who has concentrated on economic inequality, refusing to give more than token discussion to security or ethnic communities. His main threat comes from the extreme left, where anti-capitalist crusader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has become a formidable third-place challenger. Mr. Hollande's obsessions are wealth distribution and big business, not integration and security.

That leaves the simmering troubles in France's immigrant districts unaddressed. Like many Muslim politicians in Europe, Ms. Ghali supports tough law-and-order policies – in large part because her constituents are the principal victims of crime but also because she believes discipline, as well as good schools and community police, are needed to fix the damage of poverty.

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"I think the best solution is to go back to mandatory military service," she said. It's a position that her party leader would decidedly not agree with, but that is popular with her Muslim constituents. "It's not a question of left or right," she added. "This is the solution because people who don't want to go to school, they fall into dealing drugs and radicalism."

Mr. Hollande has left it to his deputies to fight the culture wars. His campaign director Pierre Muscovici lashed out at Ms. Le Pen on Thursday. "What stupidity and wickedness – Marine Le Pen is trying to conflate the [established]Muslims of France with mass immigration" and with extremists like Mr. Merah, he said. "Well, I think that's how to destroy national unity."

Perhaps as a result of his rhetoric, Mr. Sarkozy surged ahead of Mr. Hollande for the first time this week by 28.5 per cent to 27 per cent, according to an IFOP poll released Thursday. The same poll showed Ms. Le Pen with 15.5 per cent and Mr. Mélenchon with 13 per cent of the first-round vote.

The problem, though, is that because the contest between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande has turned into a proxy battle between the extreme left and the far right, the profound argument over "national unity" has become a typically French abstract battle over symbols and identities, with virtually no discussion of concrete policies to help people become more united.

"If this doesn't change, there's going to be no cause for optimism," Ms. Ghali said. "If they don't start talking about us in this election, what hope is there going to be for the future?"

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